wmthomas-sliderBy William Thomas

Port Colborne, a lakefront city at the top of the Welland Canal with a population of 18,500 people is really just a small town. It’s so small the three bargain stores downtown are within shouting distance of each other. In fact, Port Colborne is so small that 20 years ago when it experienced its very first hostage taking standoff, the gunman couldn’t find a victim. So he took himself hostage.

This is good news for family, friends and neighbours of the hostage-taker; bad news for your home-alone gunman. You see, and I believe the experts will back me up on this one, in a prolonged process of negotiation, a gunman without a hostage has severely limited bargaining power. For instance, when a gunman comes out to make his break, holds the gun to his own head and yells, “Cash and a car or I’m gonna pop this guy!” every emergency task force team in Canada is trained to stand down and let this problem pretty much take care of itself.

For me, it just doesn’t work. No, for me a hostage-taker without a hostage is like a drive-by shooter on an exercise bike. It’s like a bank robber flashing a valid driver’s license instead of a ransom note.

The incident in Port Colborne began when the ceiling of the gunman’s apartment began leaking and he fired off several shots. I know what you’re thinking — a lot of guys would’ve just called a plumber. Plus now you need six pails for the leaks instead of three.

Anyway, the police were summoned and the gunman settled in for the siege with a 30/30 rifle, a shotgun, a club, a hunting knife, a machete and a bow with arrows. Essentially, he’s as well armed as any guy you might find yourself standing next to in a bar in Florida where if they can’t ban weapons could they at least outlaw conversations about politics and religion.

During the 31-hour standoff that followed, the police who really did believe a person was being held at gunpoint, tried to call the gunman to negotiate an end to it all. Unfortunately, the guy did not have a phone. This was a real shock to residents out here in Wainfleet who already had call display. We’re usually the last to get everything.

At some point, the police sent Freebee, their Remote Mobile Investigation Unit, into the apartment and the gunman shot the hell out of the robot. This was a big mistake. I’m no expert in this area, but couldn’t Freebee have become the hostage he never had? Think about it — not only is that thing very expensive to replace, if it’s as smart as the cops claim it is, the robot could have driven the gunman’s getaway car.

Anyway, the good news is that Freebee was not killed. He was, however, listed in fair condition in the Intensive Care Unit at Atlas Steels in Welland.

The police noticed the blue light of a television set in the apartment so they cut off the TV cable for the whole building. Turns out he was watching a movie on a VCR. That’s when they cut off the electricity … to the whole city block.

At precisely 4:06 p.m. on the second day of the standoff, the Niagara Regional Police Emergency Task Force Unit said that “enough is enough” and began what they called their “teargas campaign.” They lobbed over 18 tear gas canisters at the window of the gunman’s apartment. Unfortunately, every one of them missed the window and bounced off the side of the building. Eighteen misses in a row? That’s not a “teargas campaign.” At that time in history, 18 turned out to be Kim Campbell’s campaign! (She won two seats including her own.)

When the police finally did land one in the apartment, the gunman picked it up and threw it back out through the broken window. It’s a wonder that all the residents of the building, who had been evacuated, didn’t run back up the stairs and into the gunman’s apartment because at this point, it was the only place in the neighbourhood with clean air.

After it was over, I counted 18 softball-sized pockmarks on the side of the building where the tear gas canisters bounced off. One such dent was two feet off the ground. The gunman’s apartment was on the second floor. Either the police assumed he had a midget accomplice in a ground floor apartment or they just gotta straighten out the barrel of that gas gun.

Anyway, the gunman gave himself up. I don’t know if it was the tear gas or the fear of losing his damage deposit. Personally, I think he just couldn’t stand the brutal beating the vinyl siding was taking.

And that’s why I love small town living. Because even in the throes of a real live hostage-taking standoff, neither the criminal nor the cops pose a threat to public safety. In nice little towns like Port Colborne, things have a way of working themselves out.